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2020's Indy 500 Qualifying Might Be The Fastest Since 1996

Illustration for article titled 2020s Indy 500 Qualifying Might Be The Fastest Since 1996
Photo: Kerem Yucel / AFP (Getty Images)

Qualifying for the Indianapolis 500 is coming up next weekend, from August 15-16, and it’s set to be the quickest and most difficult qualifying session we’ve seen in over two decades. And that’s even taking into account the extra drag from the addition of the aeroscreen.

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IndyCar’s regulations mandated that the 2.2-liter turbo V6 engines have 140 kPa, or 1.3-bar, boost during Indy 500 qualifying until 2018. Now, though, boost has been increased to 150 kPa, or 1.5-bar, in order to simplify engine mapping, Motorsport reports. In simpler terms, that’s an increase of 40-50 horsepower. In even simpler terms, we’re likely to see cars going real fast.

2008 Indy 500 winner and five-time series champion Scott Dixon anticipates that we’re about to set some incredibly quick speeds:

When we did the Speedway test with the aeroscreen last year, we expected the speeds to be a lot slower than they actually were, so I think the screen may be blocking some of the drag on the rear of the car, so the overall drag figure is not as much as we expected. Pole for Indy last year was right around 230, right? Well, I think we should definitely beat that, and I think even our pole run from 2017 with the manufacturer aerokits, which was 232mph – the quickest since Arie [Luyendyk]’s record in ’96 – will be gone.

Dixon also noted that weight distribution on the car is much different this year compared to last considering the addition of the aeroscreen, which is likely going to make qualifying more difficult.

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For those unfamiliar, the Indy 500 uses a unique qualifying strategy: rather than just setting one quick lap, drivers are evaluated based on their average speed over four laps. Drivers thus have to hold their car on the absolute peak of performance for an extended period of time, which, if they’ll have to wrestle with a heavier car, will be a tougher challenge than usual.

Ben Bretzman, the race engineer of Team Penske’s Simon Pagenaud, who won both pole position and the race in 2019, agreed:

Yeah, it’s going to be one of the trickier qualifying sessions we’ve had there. Is the fix as simple as just putting more downforce in the car? Possibly, but trying to manage where the downforce is on the car for qualifying and if you can get the most consistent four laps out of it – that will be a pretty big deal. We’ll be able to put up a really big lap on Lap 1, but how to manage the four laps is going to be real tricky.

The drivers are really going to have to manage their tools over the four laps, especially if the track temperatures are up. It’s going to be hard with the forward weight distribution to dial out the understeer.

That track temperature part is key. The Indy 500 has always taken place in May, so drivers and engineers will have no idea what to expect when they hit a hotter August track. It’s all going to be a mystery—so you’re not going to want to miss a moment of it.

Weekends at Jalopnik. Managing editor at A Girl's Guide to Cars. Lead IndyCar writer and assistant editor at Frontstretch. Novelist. Motorsport fanatic.

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DISCUSSION

The Buick V6 back then was nucking futs.

From RACER:

“We just started creeping up on the speeds,” said Eddie Cheever, who raced Buick-powered Lolas owned and built by billionaire John Menard’s team (LEFT) through 1996. “Before you knew it, we were doing top speeds of 250 miles per hour on the track almost the whole way around. It was astonishing. There was no Turn 1 and Turn 2 in the traditional sense; it was just a blur. You took a deep breath turning into 1 and then you had to hold it all the way around, because if you didn’t you’d get dizzy. You had a whole breathing pattern. I think it was way – there were no SAFER walls, it was just way too fast and couldn’t be sustained – you were lucky if you got away with any mistakes.”